The Meaning of the E at Delphi

Plutarch wrote a fascinating essay entitled 'The E at Delphi',1 actually in the form of a dialogue, featuring Plutarch himself and several other speakers. It is to be remembered that Plutarch was a close personal friend of Clea, the Delphic priestess of his day, and he knew much and always sought to learn more about the nature and history of the oracles not only of Delphi but elsewhere as well.


He was, however, most interested of all in Delphi itself, for he was one of the two priests of Apollo there.

The central subject of the discussion is the letter E which was a prominent inscription at the Delphic shrine. (That is, the letter E was carved in stone quite on its own at Delphi and was a subject of much curious speculation to the classical Greeks, who retained no tradition of the meaning of the ancient inscription of this single letter.)


F. C. Babbitt, in his Introduction to the dialogue, says:2

Plutarch, in this essay on the E at Delphi, tells us that beside the well-known inscriptions at Delphi there was also a representation of the letter E, the fifth letter of the Greek alphabet. The Greek name for this letter was El, and this diphthong, in addition to being used in Plutarch's time as the name of E (which denotes the number five), is the Greek word for 'if, and also the word for the second person singular of the verb 'to be' (thou art).

In searching for an explanation of the unexplainable it is only natural that the three meanings of El ('five', 'if, 'thou art') should be examined to see if any hypothesis based on any one of them might possibly yield a rational explanation. . . .


Plutarch puts forward seven possible explanations of the letter. . . . Attempts to explain the letter have been also made in modern times by Gottling . . . and by Schultz . . . Roscher . . . C. Robert . . . O. Lagercrantz . . . W. N. Bates, in the American Journal of Archaeology xxix (1925), pp. 239-46, tries to show that the E had its origin in a Minoan character E . . . later transferred to Delphi. Since the character was not understood, it, like other things at Delphi, came to be associated with Apollo. This character has been found on the old omphalos discovered in 1913 at Delphi in the temple of Apollo.

Interesting are the two coins reproduced in Imhoff-Blumer and P. Gardner, A Numismatic Commentary on Pausanius, plate X nos. xxii and xxiii (text p. 119}, which show the E suspended between the middle columns of the temple. Learned scholars should note that the letter represented is E, not Ei: therefore such explanations as are based on the true diphthong are presumably wrong.

The second explanation offered by Plutarch is in fact the correct one.


This is how Plutarch suggests it:

Ammonius smiled quietly, suspecting privately that Lamprias had been indulging in a- mere opinion of his own and was fabricating history and tradition regarding a matter in which he could not be held to account. Someone else among those present said that all this was similar to the nonsense which the Chaldaean visitor had uttered a short time before: that there are seven vowels in the alphabet and seven stars that have an independent and unconstrained motion; that E is the second in order of the vowels from the beginning, and the sun the second planet after the moon, and that practically all the Greeks identify Apollo with the Sun.

The facts that Delphi is the second descending centre in the geodetic octave, and that it is symbolized by the second vowel E, would seem to go well together. The seven vowels (each corresponding to one of the oracle centres) were uttered in succession as the holy 'unspeakable' name of God by Egyptian priests.


Demetrius of Phalerum, the student of Aristotle's Lyceum and who founded the famous great library of Alexandria when later in life he was exiled to Egypt, tells us in his surviving treatise On Style: 'In Egypt the priests sing hymns to the gods by uttering the seven vowels in succession, the sound of which produces as strong a musical impression on their hearers as if flute and lyre were used.'

In Chapter XVI of The White Goddess, Robert Graves discusses this too, and there quotes Demetrius. Graves also refers to an eight-letter version of the sacred name. It may be that if one wants to count the base oracle centre (which in musical analogy is the octave expression of the top centre) one should have an eight-letter version.


This version of the name is:


Note that E is the second letter.

We are faced with archaeological evidence that the second vowel, E, was prominently associated with the second oracle centre in descending order. (See Plate 12 of this book.) And we know from Herodotus that Dodona, the top oracle centre, was said to be founded by Egyptian priestesses from Thebes in Egypt. We also know that certain Egyptian priests sang the seven vowels (or eight vowels, including an aspirate) in succession.


We have already seen that the geodetic oracle centers seem to have an octave structure. And as this book went to press a discovery became known which demonstrated the existence of the heptatonic, diatonic musical scale in the ancient Near East. We may even make a presumption that the uttering of the seven vowels in succession may possibly have corresponded to the seven notes of the octave (but we may never know that for certain).


And it is most important to emphasize that, however bizarre to us, the association of a vowel with an oracle centre is not our invention or surmise. The E may not only be read about in Plutarch but seen on ancient coins and on the omphalos stone itself (for both of which see Plate 14). And this association of the second vowel with Delphi has never been explained by anyone.

So granted all the above, what follows? If each oracle centre had a vowel associated with it, then the second vowel being associated with the second centre would seem to imply a corresponding arrangement for the other centers. And if that is the case, it would seem that the entire system would be associated with and actually comprise a geodetic spelling-out, over eight degrees of latitude, of the unspeakable holy name of God, known commonly to the Hebrews as 'Jehovah'.

It is most important that anyone intrigued by this possibility should keep a wary eye for any further evidence. We should be on the lookout for representations of or associations of other vowels at the other centres. These may already be known to specialists in the field or there may be evidence of this sort languishing unclassified and unexplained in the basement of some museum. Or this sort of evidence may come to light at any time in the future.


One place to begin looking would, it seems to me, be with an examination of the omphalos stone from Delos, which is to be seen in Plate 12 of this book. Does this omphalos stone have a single letter inscribed on it similarly to the Delphi omphalos stone ? And what of all the other omphalos stones, such as the one from Thebes in Egypt (see Plate 12). Are any of these well enough preserved to show a puzzling single hieroglyph of a vowel ? I have not carried out any investigation of this sort myself at the present time.

In closing, it would seem that the E at Delphi must fall into some coherent system of the kind I suggest, and the explanation of the enigma must be connected with Plutarch's lightly advocated second explanation - that to do with E being the second vowel.


(Babbitt's exclusion of the diphthong on the basis of the ancient coins to be seen in Plate 14 of this book is therefore crucial and to my view conclusive.)


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  1. The dialogue 'The E at Delphi' is to be found in English in Volume V of Plutarch's Moralia (altogether 15 vols) published in the Loeb Classical Library series; London: William Heinemann Ltd., and U.S.A.: Harvard University Press. The volume first appeared in 1936, and the translation is by Frank Cole Babbitt. Other works of Plutarch in the same volume are 'Isis and Osiris', "The Oracles at Delphi No Longer Given in Verse', and 'The Obsolescence of Oracles'.

  2. Ibid. See Plate 14 of this book.